Presbyterians of the Past

Samuel M. Breckinridge, 1828-1891

When Samuel Miller Breckinridge entered the Fort Street Presbyterian Church in Detroit, Michigan, for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1891, he found himself in a spacious and ornate sanctuary. The central pulpit was set in front of the banks of brass organ pipes where it was clearly visible to each seat in the pews at floor level and in the high-tiered balcony. Once seated, Judge Breckinridge and the other presbyters were convened by the retiring moderator, William E. Moore, D.D., who then delivered his sermon from John 3:17, “For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him should be saved.” William Henry Green of Princeton Seminary was elected the moderator by acclamation. It was to be an eventful assembly meeting for the denomination’s highest judicatory, but especially so for Judge Breckinridge.

Samuel Miller Breckinridge was born to Rev. John and Margaret Breckinridge on November 3, 1828. Samuel was named for his mother’s father, Professor Samuel Miller, D.D., of Princeton Theological Seminary. At the time of the boy’s birth, his father was the minister of the Second Presbyterian Church of Baltimore. Samuel studied briefly in Union College, New York, and the institution so connected with the Breckinridges, Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, where he was a non-graduate of the class of 1844 but would in later years be made an honorary alumnus. However, most of his academic work was accomplished in the College of New Jersey where he was given the A.M., to which in later years would be added the honor of an L.L. D. Returning to Kentucky, he studied in the Law School of Transylvania University in preparation for admission to the bar. Samuel then sought a good place to practice law and determined in 1850 that a move west to St. Louis would provide the best opportunity for success.

Samuel Breckinridge crossed the Mississippi River from Illinois into St. Louis and settled in his new home where he began his work with the jots and tittles of law. His practice prospered so that in 1854, as was common with his ancestors and kin, Mr. Breckinridge entered politics and was elected to represent the county of St. Louis in the Missouri House of Representatives, 1854-1855. In 1859, he was elected a Judge of the Circuit Court of the State of Missouri. Judge Breckinridge became a member of Second Presbyterian Church of St. Louis and was elected an elder in 1871. In 1873, he was appointed to the General Assembly Committee on Fraternal Relations, which met a similar committee of the Presbyterian Church U.S. The following year he was a member of the General Assembly meeting in St. Louis. In 1878, Judge Breckinridge was appointed to the General Assembly Committee on the Revision of the Book of Discipline, which he continued in until its final report was presented to the assembly of 1882. He was also a member of the General Assemblies that met at Buffalo in 1881 and Saratoga in 1883.

When the 103rd General Assembly convened on May 21, 1891, Judge Breckinridge and his friend, Robert M. Rankin, were registered as the two elders representing St. Louis Presbytery of the Synod of Missouri. The proceedings commenced and some of the subjects covered included an overture on the subject of deaconesses that had been sent down to the presbyteries, which the assembly referred to a committee to tally the presbytery responses; the report of the Committee to Revise the Westminster Confession of Faith; and then the Permanent Committee on Editions of the Constitution reported on its work restoring the text of the confession, catechisms, and form of government to their earliest forms going back to the 1789 first edition. Judge Breckinridge was appointed to a committee to tally the answers of the presbyteries to an overture regarding changes to chapter 23, “Of Amendments,” in the Form of Government.

C. A. Briggs, The Authority of Holy Scripture, Title Page, 1891, 8-7-2015Events rolled along fairly smoothly as reports were made and actions taken until a telegram was received by Stated Clerk Moore announcing that Dr. Henry J. Van Dyke, who had been elected as Professor of Systematic Theology in Union Seminary “had died instantly last night from angina pectoris.” This was, of course, a shock to the gathering and later in the meeting a memorial composed by a special committee was adopted and sent to his family. However, the untimely death would further complicate an already difficult situation at Union Seminary due to controversy regarding Professor C. A. Briggs; Van Dyke’s death meant that a new candidate would have to be located for his unfilled systematic theology position.

In addition to his work on the tallying committee, Judge Breckinridge was a member of the Standing Committee on Theological Seminaries which presented a partial report beginning at 2:30 on Wednesday, May 27. The subject of the report was the appointment of C. A. Briggs as Professor of Biblical Theology at Union Seminary. The report was ordered to be printed and available for the first order of the day on Thursday. The issue was divisive and the tension that had been building would be released in the energy of a heated debate. Deliberation began on Thursday morning after the opening devotional exercises and continued until the assembly adjourned for lunch.

When the assembly reconvened at 2:30, Dr. S. C. Logan proposed an amendment to the committee report regarding Briggs which opened the floor to debate. Judge Breckinridge moved to the platform and spoke for twenty minutes in support of the work of the committee and its report. When he ended his speech, he said, “I have discharged my duty,” and then he collapsed to the floor so that his head struck the platform with a loud, disturbing thud. The New York Times reported that the large church was “packed to the doors” with people “standing in the aisles” and “even the city ordinance against placing chairs in the aisles had been disregarded.” All eyes were directed to the platform where the judge had collapsed. A physician was called for from the assembly and he found Breckinridge gasping for breath. The physician had him moved to a private room, the assembly suspended its business, and the presbyters waited apprehensively for a report. It was soon announced that Judge Breckinridge was dead and the pensive and concerned crowd responded with a great groan.

It was a tragic loss of a fine and dedicated elder who was particularly gifted for work with the secondary standards of the church. After the death of Union Seminary’s Van Dyke earlier in the assembly, the death of Judge Breckinridge seemed to be a second attention-grabbing message, though the meaning of the two tragedies was buried somewhere in the depths of God’s providence. The assembly appointed a committee to prepare a memorial and escort the body of Judge Breckinridge back to St. Louis. One member of the committee was his friend and fellow elder, Robert Rankin, who must have been especially saddened by Judge Breckinridge’s death. Former Michigan Governor Russell Alger placed his private rail car and a special train at the disposal of the committee for transporting Judge Breckinridge’s body. The tragedy that had unfolded before the presbyters, onlookers, and media of the day had brought a contemplative pause to the proceedings. The banquet planned for 8:00 that evening was cancelled and a prayer meeting was scheduled in its place.

The body of Judge Breckinridge was returned to his home in St. Louis where it remained with the family for viewing by kin and friends. On Sunday, May 31, the casket was taken to his church, Second Presbyterian, where the funeral services were led by its longtime pastor, Rev. S. J. Niccolls, D.D. The sanctuary was filled with many church friends, associates from the legal community, relatives, and concerned citizens. Following the public service, the immediate family and members of the Princeton Club gathered for the graveside service in the Bellefontaine Cemetery. His grave is marked with an impressive monument that is inscribed with “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord” (Revelation 14:13). Samuel’s wife, Virginia Castleman Breckinridge, would live to see the turn of the twentieth century.

Barry Waugh

Notes—Biographies of other Breckinridges on Presbyterians of the Past, include, William Lewis Breckinridge,  Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, John Breckinridge, Mary Cabell Breckinridge, and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield. Virginia Castleman Breckinridge was born on July 4, which seems an appropriate date of birth for the spouse of a Breckinridge given the family’s political contributions to the nation; a picture of the Breckinridge grave monument is available on find-a-grave. 

Sources—Clarification editing was done on this biography, August 18, 2015. The New York Times, May 19, 21, 26, 28, 29, 31, and June 1, 1891; the full citation for the minutes is, Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, New Series, Vol. XIV, A.D. 1891. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, by the Stated Clerk, 1891.

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